But interspersed with games, laughter and breathtaking walks through the Desert Spiny Forest I managed to integrate with the people of Tsilamaha in my own way, and hopefully imprint on them the crazy notion that because the forest reaches as far as the horizon, it still needs to be looked after.
The Atandroy people are the toughest tribe of Madagascar by national reputation and living among them was hard-going. The chief Mahata’s hospitality meant that we occupied two of his huts and when the rains came we even moved in to his ‘spare room’.
I woke every morning to the noisy din of crying children, clucking hens and singing roosters, women beating rice before the sun pours over the hills and children running around endlessly, happy.
From the village I trekked with the chief about an hour and a half to the outskirts of the forest where he pointed out more trees than I’ll ever remember and their uses. Trees for building homes, others for coffins, trees with bulbous roots only to be eaten during the famine, tree sap used for glue, fibres for weaving mats and baskets.
The undergrowth is so dense at times it looks impenetrable but the chief always finds a way. He knows the forest like the back of his hand; he can find a beehive, a lemur or a small Malagasy hedgehog, the Tenrec, for dinner.
I’ll never forget the red earth and how it got everywhere, the spines on the ground that make it impossible to walk barefoot - although the kids play football without shoes. Watching meat dry on a line and then looking forward to eating it, pumping water by the river knowing I can’t take a dip, washing clothes while eight pairs if eyes watch the bubbles amused – finally dipping a finger in the bowl to smell the soap.
Since leaving the village I do wonder if the troupe of men that accompanied us to plant trees have carried on and whether the children still play with the Frisbee we left behind. Are the pictures they drew with me nailed in their hut?
It isn’t implausible and maybe I’ll return to Tsilamaha. Hopefully when I do the Desert Spiny Forest will still be there.